No splitting this one.
South Carolina hammered Tennessee 62-46 on Sunday to win its first SEC tournament, riding an MVP performance from senior Aleighsa Welch to erase the sting of having to share the regular-season championship. The Gamecocks beat Tennessee in the regular season but a loss to Kentucky cost them sole possession of that title; they went to North Little Rock knowing that they were better than that.
They proved it on Sunday. The Lady Vols (27-5) couldn’t shoot well enough to overcome a USC team that didn’t play its best, but had a couple of individuals who were not going to let the Gamecocks fall.
“There’s not going to be a game we play where I don’t give all that I have, as far as effort and doing everything I can to will our team to a win,” Welch said. “I wanted every rebound that came off, offensively or defensively. I made sure I attempted to go for every rebound.”
Welch, who set USC’s career record for offensive rebounds on Saturday, had eight rebounds on Sunday, five offensive. In the game’s first 30 minutes, she was the only Gamecock post who was willing to challenge Tennessee’s burly forwards.
Tennessee shut down USC’s interior, denying Alaina Coates touches and forcing Elem Ibiam into a horrid shooting day. The Gamecocks (30-2) stayed in the game with their re-discovered outside shooting, hitting four first-half 3-pointers and Tiffany Mitchell shedding a bad Saturday to score the quietest 17 points ever seen in a title game, but USC was struggling.
The Gamecocks had not taken advantage of center Bashaara Graves sitting out the final 15 minutes of the first half after she picked up two quick fouls. USC was tentative, even afraid of trying to throw the ball into the paint -– passes that did make it in were tipped away, tied up or kicked back out. USC led by three at halftime thanks to a Welch-led spurt, but the Gamecocks knew that Graves would return for the second half.
Staley didn’t scream or even address it at the half. The Gamecocks were still leading, still making some shots.
“I was still encouraged,” Staley said. “Because the defense was holding up.”
The offense decided to match it.
Welch tipped in her own miss to start the second half, then rebounded Andraya Carter’s miss before blocking Jordan Reynolds. Another putback a minute later kept the Gamecocks ahead by five, and the Vols began to miss easy shots.
Tennessee was at 50 percent early in the game, the subs picking up Graves’ absence by draining 3-pointers. But USC’s defense was starting to take effect – every shot was contested, every face had a hand in it.
Mitchell stroked three free throws and USC led by six. The Gamecocks then turned to another weapon – SEC Freshman of the Year A’ja Wilson.
The 6-foot-5 rookie wasn’t afraid to plow into the paint, muscling leather through Tennessee’s traffic to score inside buckets. The Vols went over six minutes without a field goal and missed six straight free throws at one point as USC seized control. Tennessee only hit eight field goals in the second half and scored its lowest amount of points of the season.
A Khadijah Sessions jumper unleashed more paint and transition points, and by the time Sessions buried a 3-pointer from the corner, USC’s name had been etched onto the trophy. Wilson finished with 11 points, Sessions had 12 and Welch 14.
The Gamecocks made themselves 1-for-1 in SEC tournament title-game appearances, and as the confetti fell and the obelisk trophy was presented, Staley could reflect.
“It feels pretty good to be where we are today, because we still feel every bit of seven years ago, when we were just trying to jump-start the program,” she said.
Staley won 10 games her first year at USC. Recruits began to cycle through, wins began to mount and the Gamecocks became solid, then good, then great, then elite.
But it’s not over. USC is expected to be named a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a week from Monday, and then the true challenge is upon it. The Gamecocks have said all year that they think they can win a national championship; now’s the time to prove it.
“Now it is win or go home,” Welch said. “You can’t afford to have a bad game.”
Reynolds 6-13 3-4 17, Massengale 0-6 0-2 0, Burdick 3-9 0-0 6, Graves 2-7 3-6 7, Carter 3-7 0-0 7, Moore 0-2 0-0 0, Nared 3-9 0-0 6, Middleton 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 18-54 6-12 46.
SOUTH CAROLINA (30-2)
Sessions 4-7 1-2 12, Welch 7-15 0-0 14, Mitchell 5-10 5-5 17, Dozier 0-1 0-0 0, Ibiam 1-8 0-0 2, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Cuevas 0-1 0-0 0, Gaines 0-1 0-0 0, Duckett 0-0 0-0 0, Wilson 5-7 1-2 11, Roy 0-4 0-0 0, White 1-1 0-0 2, Coates 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 25-57 7-9 62.
Halftime_South Carolina 29-26. 3-Point Goals_Tennessee 4-12 (Reynolds 2-4, Middleton 1-1, Carter 1-2, Nared 0-1, Massengale 0-2, Burdick 0-2), South Carolina 5-13 (Sessions 3-4, Mitchell 2-4, Cuevas 0-1, Dozier 0-1, Roy 0-3). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Tennessee 32 (Graves 8), South Carolina 38 (Coates, Welch 8). Assists_Tennessee 8 (Graves 3), South Carolina 12 (Roy, Sessions 3). Total Fouls_Tennessee 9, South Carolina 11. A_5,819.